I'll be honest - this was supposed to be an article about how depressingly shot Derek Jeter's looked this season, how continuing to bat him second looks more ridiculous with each passing day and how the Yankees are putting the spectacle of his farewell tour ahead of winning baseball games. But Jeter has spent a hall-of-fame career destroying narratives and this week in Anaheim, he did a decent job kicking the crap out of mine.
Heading into Monday night's game, there wasn't much good to say about Jeter's early season. Through 107 plate appearances he was hitting in the .240's, his OPS was under .600 and he had just three extra-base hits - all doubles. For some context, Jeter's had eight games in his career with three or more hits for extra bases. Some media types, like Joel Sherman were going past the whole not hitting second thing to suggest that the captain might need to be benched, or at least shifted to part-time duty upon the return of Brendan Ryan.
Then, a couple of miles from the Magic Kingdom, something sort of magical happened. Spurred on by an Angels Stadium crowd that sounded more supportive than the New York version, Derek Jeter started to look like, well...Derek Jeter. In 13 plate appearances versus Angels pitchers, he reached base seven times, racking up five hits, including a double and a homer, driving in a run and scoring three. It shouldn't come as that much of a surprise. Jeter's been left for dead and risen from the ashes before. He posted his worst year in 2010 and looked even worse through the first half of 2011, but he rebounded to a level pretty close to his career norms for the ensuing year-and-a-half. Still, 2012 was two years and two ankle surgeries ago. With Jeter just over a month shy of quadragenarian status, trusting in another comeback will require more than just a hot few games in California.
The best explanation for Jeter's surge this week may be that he still hits lefties pretty well, and that two of the Angels three starters were left-handed. Jeter's managed a .319/.418/.383 triple-slash vs. southpaws this season, continuing a trend where the gap in his splits has grown increasingly large. Overall, the numbers aren't fun to look at. Jeter's .262/.336/.327 line is worse than his 2010 production and his .065 ISO is particularly alarming. He's having trouble catching up to fastballs he was once able to muscle out to right, resulting in a career-worst K-rate of 18.3%, an above-normal swing-and-miss rate of 8.2% and a zone contact rate of 87.2%, a notch below his career average. Though Jeter's ground ball rate of 57.1% is lower than it's been in recent years it still ranks in the top 20 in baseball. Despite hitting behind some of the speedier players in the game in Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner, he's grounded into four double plays this year and was saved from a fifth Wednesday night only by Angels reliever Cory Rasmus' indecisiveness.
The Yankees can live with a .304 wOBA and an 88 wRC+ from their shortstop. That's certainly better than Brendan Ryan would do, so there's no reason why Jeter should be benched or platooned. But should they live with it from the two spot? My answer is no, at least not against righties, though the Yankees may have backed themselves into a corner in that regard. In spring training there were plenty of non-performance-based opportunities to bump Jeter down from the top of the order in a delicate and respectful way. Age and rust were ideal scapegoats as was the desire to start games with the expensive Ellsbury-Gardner duo back-to-back. Now, if Jeter's dropped it'll be due to his struggles alone, and that's tougher to sugarcoat. Jeter wouldn't complain - not like Jorge Posada did over batting ninth in 2011 - but the story would be huge and the always close-to-the-vest Joe Girardi would probably prefer to not endure it.
The second spot in baseball has been one of the more diverse lineup positions over the years in terms of what it's been used for. Traditionally managers would stick someone there who made a lot of contact and moved runners - a guy they could rely on to get down a usually ill-advised sacrifice bunt. Bobby Richardson batted second for most of his career, and no one seemed to mind putting a sub-.300 OBP directly in front of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. At other times, the slot's been used for a sort of second leadoff man. In the 80's, Willie Randolph would have been an excellent number one, with solid speed and OBP's consistently north of .360, but instead he was sandwiched between Rickey Henderson and Don Mattingly - not a bad place to be, really. In the modern era, there's been a push in the advanced stats community that second is the ideal place for a team's best all-around offensive player. The Angels follow that credo by putting Mike Trout there.
In his prime, Jeter was a sampling of all of those things. He reached base often, he could run, he loved advancing runners and he was a dynamic all-around offensive force, adding doubles, triples and home runs at a more than respectable pace. But these days, he's closer to being none of them. His K-rate is up, while his contact-rate is down. He isn't getting on like he once did and he hasn't stolen a bag this year, while his power has become non-existent. This isn't to say that Jeter can't still help the Yankees - he can, even at forty. There's no shame in the idea that he's no longer the best option to hit second.
So what should the Yankees' regular order be? Against righties, lead off with Gardner followed by Ellsbury, then Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira and Alfonso Soriano in the middle. Put Brian McCann sixth, at least until he starts hitting, then Jeter seventh, and some combination of Brian Roberts, Yangervis Solarte and Kelly Johnson eighth and ninth, depending on who's playing. Against lefties, Ellsbury should hit first - leave Jeter second, then Beltran, Tex, Soriano, McCann, Solarte, Roberts and Gardner.